Unhappy with their officials, what the two presidents are asking for is a return to the past, not a leap to the future
Three weeks ago, President Paul Kagame; during a government
leadership retreat, expressed disaffection with top officials for
delaying government projects unnecessarily. Then last week, President
Yoweri Museveni, during Uganda’s leadership retreat, expressed a similar
sentiment about his ministers.
Kagame and Museveni’s frustrations provided considerable grist to
their critics’ mill. I received many cheeky messages saying: we have
always told you that these governments are not working; now the two
presidents have admitted it themselves.
I have interacted with both presidents and their governments for over
a decade now. It is clear that both Museveni and Kagame are complaining
because they have been successful, not because they have failed.
Indeed, their frustrations are going to increase, not decrease. This is
because power to implement government projects has gotten increasingly
institutionalised. If the presidents want things to move faster, they
may have to retreat to personalising the state and ruling arbitrarily.
This may be contradictory coming for me especially on Uganda since I
have always accused Museveni of personalising the state. But the reality
is more nuanced. Here is how.
Sometime in 2003 while a reporter at Daily Monitor, I visited
Museveni at State House Nakasero and spent a quiet evening with him. He
told me that in early 1986 after NRM had taken over power, Uganda was
facing a crisis of soap. The president instructed his aides to fetch
businessman Mukwano who was the manufacturer of soap. Museveni said that
when Mukwano appeared in his presence, he looked terrified, perhaps
fearing he was going to be jailed or even killed because he had been
close to the government of Milton Obote.
‘At the time Uganda needed 100,000 metric tons of soap per year,’ the
president told me pensively, ‘I asked Mukwano how much he produced in
his factory and he said 20,000 metric tons only. I asked what he needed
to increase production to 100,000 metric tons to meet domestic demand
and he said $10m. I ordered government to immediately give him the $10m
and it was done. Within a year Mukwano increased soap production to
exceed 100,000 metric tons. That is the way we solved the crisis of soap
supply in Uganda. It was a win-win because we got what we wanted
(increased soap production) and Mukwano got to expand his business.’
But these were the days when NRM was still a small neat group of
people committed to a grand project of national reconstruction. Theft
was still scorned at even though some had developed large appetites. And
Museveni’s word was law. Institutions were weak or nonexistent. There
was need for a strong and dynamic leader to direct things. A similar
situation obtained in Rwanda with varying degrees.
Today the economies of both Uganda and Rwanda have grown eighteen
fold; their revenues over 180 fold. Consequently both countries have
developed large bureaucracies to manage the growing size and complexity
of government. The existing states are far different from small groups
of close-knit individuals whom they worked with in the early years of
reconstruction. Indeed, these bureaucracies are decentralized and
populated by people of different ideological strips and career ambitions
or even personal motivations.
Secondly, economic expansion has been accompanied by the growth of
new social forces – business interests, civil society, a consolidated
civil service, intrusive donors, professionals, students, youth,
traders, vendors etc. With rapidly growing public contracts to dish out,
a large body of commission agents has developed that link the state to
foreign and domestic corporations seeking to partake of the contracts
government is dishing out.
These commission agents, for example, solve coordination problems
between the state and foreign business. But they also create schemes for
cheating the public. Slowing down the rate at which government
contracts are awarded (by putting in place various oversight
institutions and functions) is one way to protect the public good. It
may not always work as expected, but it is one way nonetheless. Hence
both governments tend to obsess more with controlling corruption than
delivering public goods and services. So delays in implementing
government projects will increase.
Thirdly the larger both governments have grown the more their
ideological core has gotten diluted. Bureaucratic expansion has
attracted people who do not share the original objectives of NRM/RPF.
This makes it difficult to sustain the momentum of delivery that
animated these movements initially. Indeed this is the reason procedures
and processes to contain abuse become critical. But processes create
unnecessary (or even necessary) delays as individuals can hide behind
procedures to justify their incompetence.
Kagame and Museveni can shout at and threaten their ministers and
other top officials. But I am not sure they can stop the slide of both
their countries becoming more bureaucratised where work is increasingly a
routine job, not pursuit of a cause. Rwanda may fare better than Uganda
because of the way RPF is organised and given existential threats it
faces. These create a sense among many in Rwanda government that “We are
working to rebuild our country.” So, for many Rwandans, working in
government is not just a job but also a cause.
But this core in Rwanda that thinks this way is everyday getting
diluted as the state bureaucracy growsby attracting people who may not
share this idealistic vision. In Uganda, the climb down from the
pedestal of a cause to the hard reality self-interest was rapid and
broad-based. There are few officials in Uganda’s public sector who still
see their work as a cause.
Therefore Museveni and Kagame are victims of their own success. They
want things to move faster through personal interventions yet the states
they have built have become more bureaucratised. Their frustrations are
good because they signal the growing institutionalization of power.
They reveal that both can no longer demand something and it happens as
it used to. Museveni and Kagame can opt to achieve rapid results by
becoming high handed and arbitrary. But this would undermine the very
institutions they have helped build.
Fortunately there is a more enlightened way to speed of the business
of government without undermining institutions – reform the public
sector to act more like the private sector. It has happened in
Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Mauritius and Dubai. This demands that
the mindset of state officials changes from seeing their role as
policing contracts to seeing it as promoting them. We should hold public
officials accountable for results, not procedures.